Lenten lesson: Weakness revealed, strength restored
It had been a long time since he had visited the synagogue.
Once a strong, vibrant young man, skilled in his trade, able to provide for his family, now his right hand was withered and deformed, and his life had completely changed.
With these words, the stage was set Friday afternoon by the Rev. Clark Bates, pastor at McCook Christian Church, during the second Community Lenten service for a congregation of 126 at Memorial United Methodist Church.
A man without hope, a life without joy -- this was the man with the withered hand.
"Some of us are known by our names," said Bates. "Some by our professions. What must it be like to be known by your weakness, your deformity?"
"So this man, because of his deformity, withdrew," Bates continued, weaving the tale from Luke 6:6-11.
This man's weakness dictated his days be spent alone, so as not to draw attention to his deformity. In fact, he even avoided the synagogue, especially after the message one day underscored the teaching that no priest with any deformity could draw near to minister for people.
"God is perfect," said the rabbi on that long ago day, citing Leviticus 21. "And those who serve him must be free of any defect."
But on this day, a Sabbath day, the man had heard that Jesus was in town. A glimmer of hope was born. He had heard that because of this Jesus the blind could see, the deaf could hear and the lame were walking. Hope spoke to the man, Bates continued. "Maybe, just maybe, this Jesus can make your hand whole again."
And so, hiding his deformity in the folds of his cloak, he made his way to the synagogue, knowing that he would see this man, this Jesus, this healer, there.
A great crowd moved toward the synagogue, and when he arrived, the only seats available were in the center of the room. The scribes and the Pharisees were seated in the places of honor along the wall. The man could feel the eyes of the entire crowd, including those of the religious elite, resting on him. He could almost hear the unspoken question, almost an accusation, "What's he doing here, he with the withered hand, he who has stayed away so long?"
But then he heard his neighbor exclaim in an excited whisper, "That's Jesus! The Master is here!"
Jesus knew that the "scribes and the Pharisees were watching to see if he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him." Jesus looked over the crowd, his gaze fell on the man with the withered hand and he called to him, "Get up and come forward."
The man, wanting to be anywhere but there at that moment in time, wanting to hide not only his deformity but his entire presence from the now too-attentive crowd, was nevertheless drawn to Jesus and made his way to the Lord, shoving his deformed hand even deeper into his humble cloak.
"And Jesus said to them, 'I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?' After looking around at them all, he said to him 'Stretch out your hand!' And he did so; and his hand was restored." (Luke 6: 9, 10)
The strength of his youth returned. His fingers uncurled, he flexed them, they moved freely. The crowd murmured, "Praise Jehovah." Tears of wonder and joy coursed down the faces of those who raised up silent praise.
But the religious leaders were filled with rage, their faces contorted in anger at this blatant act of defiance.
And the man with the withered hand, now restored, and his life restored with it, saw the weakness and frailty of these religious leaders suddenly revealed. Their hearts, not their hands, were withered within them, deformed and void of compassion. Bates explained, the man understood that these men were seriously handicapped and that "they don't even know it!"
Sin is our withered hand, Bates said.
"Sin must be exposed before it can be forgiven," he said, "just as weakness must be revealed before it can be restored."
Our inclination, however, is to hide our sin, to "keep it all together," to maintain the appearance of righteousness. The danger, Bates explained, is that sin, hidden and unconfessed, shrivels our hearts, and drive us farther and farther from Jesus.
"What voice are you listening to?" he challenged. "The voice of pride, that says 'I have an image to protect' or the voice of God, the voice of the one who longs to restore you?"
Bates then recalled a man who held the highest position in the land, but who, nonetheless, was weighed down with guilt over his sin.
"We are all familiar with King David and his grievous sin," he said, but listen to what David said, after he had confessed his sin and received the Lord's forgiveness.
"Oh what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven." (Psalm 32:1)
Contrast that praise with the emotions found in the same psalm, counseled Bates, where David remembers, "When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was drained away."
"Will you, like David, let your weakness be revealed, so that your strength can be restored?" asked Bates, not neglecting to acknowledge that in the confession, shame came, but then came restoration.
Continuing in Psalm 32 Bates offered this advice from King David, "Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found ... many sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him..."
The Rev. Emmanuel Reinbold served as worship leader and Evie Caldwell again served as organist. McCook Christian Church provided a variety of entrees, salads and dessert for the luncheon immediately following the lesson.
Sponsored by the Red Willow County Ministerial Association, the series, following the theme "The Healing Stories of Jesus,"continues at 12:05 p.m., Friday, March 5, at Memorial United Methodist Church with the Rev. Steve Bales, pastor at First Congregational Church, speaking on Luke 5:12-16, "The Man with Leprosy."
A free will offering to support the work of the ministerial association is accepted at the entrance to the sanctuary. A second free will offering, accepted in the Fellowship Hall, helps to defray the cost of the meal provided.
To listen to the community service or for more information on the Red Willow County Ministerial Association go online to www.mccookchurches.org